This post is a companion to last week’s essay on using a plan.txt file to organize your work. Both are inspired by my freestyle productivity philosophy. However, whereas last week’s post focused on handling the big stuff, this week’s post focuses on keeping up with the small.
The Cost of Focus
Here’s a problem I’ve faced recently: my obsessive focus on a small number of important project causes me to fall behind on the annoying little administrative stuff that pops up on a daily basis. I’m not talking about the regularly occurring minutia, like cleaning my apartment or working out: these can be easily handled with an autopilot schedule. I am referring, instead, to the random, unexpected productivity lint that regularly clogs my inbox and emanates a powerful aura of procrastination-inducing annoyance.
Over the past year or so, I’ve tried several failed strategies to rectify this situation, including:
- Dedicating one day a week to administrative tasks. This failed for two reasons. One, I didn’t have enough stuff to fill a full day. Second, the thought of handling such a large quantity of annoying small tasks scared me, so I tended to morph the day into a pseudo-vacation during which little got done.
- Choosing a reasonable number of important administrative tasks each morning that I have to accomplish that day. I was still procrastinating. I would work until I was tired then declare it impossible, in my current mental state, to tackle such terrible, worthless tasks. So I wouldn’t.
- Scheduling mosquito dashes of fixed duration at fixed times each day. I found that it was very hard to shift from my focus mindset to an annoying task mindset then back to a focus mindset.
The Stable Mucking Method
Finally, I stumbled across a techniques that, for some reason, seems to work for me. I call it the stable mucking method in honor of the annoying, terrible, daily task the afflicts stable hands: mucking the manure out of the horse stables. If you skip a day, the manure will pile up, causing an unhealthy situation for the horses. So, as any stable hand will tell you, every day must end with at least some mucking.
(They also have a much more popular, similar-sounding axiom, which will have to remain unsaid…)
I adopted this same mindset for tackling my annoying administrative tasks.
That is: At the end of each day I require myself to do something administrative. Even if it’s really small.
Because the work could conceivably involve only the easiest, smallest possible task on my list, it isn’t scary. This, in turn, defuses the urge to procrastinate. Indeed, some days I do hone right in on the minimum amount of work — think: sending a single e-mail — and then clock out.
But, on an increasing number of days, once I get started down an administrative track I get inspired to knock off a decent amount of tasks. In the end, enough gets accomplished each week that I manage to stay afloat.
Not For Everyone
If you have a job then stable mucking probably won’t work. People who work for a living are required to accomplish a large amount of administrative tasks every single day.
I know. I hear it sucks.
But for students, like us, mucking tends to be enough. Our administrative load is light and non-urgent enough that a little here and a little there keeps us stress-free.
(If you’re new to whole idea of personal organization, I still recommend starting with something simple, like the method outlined in Straight-A, to get used to the idea of actually capturing, scheduling, and doing things. If you’re a fan of GTDCS, you’ll notice that the idea of mucking some tasks off your lists each day fits perfectly into the framework.)
The Return of Freestyle Productivity
Last week I introduced freestyle productivity.
- Our brains are terrible at remembering everything we have to do, which is why good capture and organizations systems are necessary.
- Our brains are wonderful, by contrast, at coming up with short-term plans that balance the subtle demands we face in the near future. Trying to force a one-size fits all action plan to our lives constrains this natural ability.
We should deploy good systems to capture and organize tasks, but rely on creative strategies, crafted on the fly, to plan how we actually tackle the work in the short term.
In other words: your brain knows what you need to do, give it a chance to make a plan and it will make a damn good one.
The stable mucking method fits beautifully in this framework. Instead of relying on some constrictive set of rules for accomplishing the small tasks in your life, it’s just a simple a reminder that each day you should face your task list and do something. Your brain will figure out what’s important at the moment.
Trust me. It works…